The festive season is once again here. Nativity scenes abound in public squares, churches and even shopping centres, depicting the birth of Christ in Bethlehem. Christmas carols and songs of joy are sung remembering this little town.
The Bethlehem that exists in popular consciousness is the one on the front of Christmas cards or the one Christians read about in the bible: a peaceful pastoral village, awash with shepherds and sheep.
Today’s Bethlehem is very different. After 46 years of brutal Israeli military occupation, it is a town transformed. It is a town where Israeli soldiers roam the streets with impunity; it is a town where 10- and 12-year-old children are arrested by Israel's military without rhyme or reason; it is a town scarred by razor wire, steel cages, checkpoints, watchtowers with snipers nests, and an eight metre (28 feet) wall – three times the height of the Berlin Wall – which divides and cuts Bethlehem's residents off from 70 percent of their land.
Today's Bethlehem is a city where residents, whether Christian or Muslim – like their sisters and brothers in the rest of the Occupied West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza – are subject to arbitrary arrest and detention without charge or trial. Like their brethren, Palestinians in Occupied Bethlehem suffer frequent home invasions, house demolitions and have their freedom of movement severely curtailed.
Far from being the quiet pastoral village in popular imaginings, today's Bethlehem is a graphic example of the Israel’s settler colonial, apartheid and ethnic cleansing polices.
Over the last forty years, Israel has established 22 Israeli-only colonies on land stolen from the residents of Bethlehem. Over the years, the Zionist state has continued to expand these settlements, taking more and more Palestinian land.
In recent times, Israel has confiscated approximately 22,000 dunams of land (22 square kilometres) to expand the illegal colonies of Gilo, Giv'at Hamatos and Har Homa. An additional 4,000 dunams has been annexed by Israel's apartheid wall. As a result, most of Bethlehem's northern land has been lost to Israel's illegal settlements and the city has been cut off and isolated from Occupied East Jerusalem.
Israel's occupation and apartheid policies have also impacted the city's economy. The unemployment rate today sits at approximately 25 percent. Not only is Bethlehem's local economy, which is predominantly reliant on tourism, severely impacted and damaged by Israel's occupation – Palestinian residents are unable to travel freely to Jerusalem or other areas of Palestine for employment. In April 2011 alone, approximately 15,000 Palestinian Christians applied for permits to enter Occupied East Jerusalem. Only 2,500 were granted.
As Vera Baboun, Bethlehem's first woman mayor, noted in her Christmas greetings on 1 December, “Bethlehem is not a museum, nor a wooden grotto. It is a living experience of daily struggle for existence, for a just and lasting peace, and this is the Bethlehem we also share with the world”. Baboun went on to note that today, Bethlehem is “home to thousands of refugees who have been waiting for the fulfilment of their rights since 1948” and that as a result of Israel's occupation and apartheid policies, “Bethlehem is a living call for freedom and dignity”.
Like Occupied Bethlehem, the rest of the West Bank, Occupied East Jerusalem and Gaza, are also a living call for freedom and dignity. Israel has continued to demolish homes, steal and annex land, carry out mass arrests, restrict freedom of movement, impose curfews and carry out home invasions.
Between 28 November and 18 December, Israeli Occupation Forces killed five Palestinian civilians, including at least one child. During this period Israel conducted 143 military invasions of Palestinian villages and towns in the Occupied West Bank.
In the same period Israeli occupation forces used systematic and excessive force against peaceful unarmed demonstrations. In the both the West Bank and Gaza, Israeli military forces have also regularly opened fire on unarmed Palestinian civilians, farmers and fishermen attempting to reach farmland or fishing grounds.
Over these last three weeks, as part of its relentless seven year siege on Gaza, Israel has also continued to impose a total blockade on the region, resulting in essential goods being in extreme shortage. According to the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, the amount of cooking gas currently allowed into Gaza amounts to less than half the daily winter requirement of the 1.5 million civilians.
This year, as in years gone by, Christmas in Bethlehem and the rest of the Occupied Palestinian Territories will be one where the living experience of daily struggle for existence and self determination will continue.
This Christmas in Bethlehem, the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza, will be one marked by Palestinian sumoud (steadfastness), resistance and struggle against Israel's occupation and apartheid policies.
This Christmas, Palestinians continue to demand human rights, justice and freedom.